Before The Fall
by Noah Hawley
Grand Central Publishing | May 2016
Paperback: 391 pages (978–1-4555-6178-0)
ARC: E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
A luxury private aircraft lifts off from Martha’s Vineyard heading to New York City.
Eighteen minutes later, having passed all pre-flight inspections and found in tip-top shape, it spirals nose down into the Atlantic.
What happened…Before The Fall?
Who dunnit? Why?
The writer and producer of the TV series Fargo, Noah Hawley, takes his profound writing skills into his fifth novel. The story opens with the crew and passengers boarding the nine-seat OSPRY 45XR for the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to the NYC area. Hawley teases the reader with weather possibilities for the crash such as heavy fog but these teases are obvious and distracting.
The narrator cryptically sets the opening scene much like an old Twilight Zone episode.
“Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made.
How two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.”
The ground crew refuels the plane, the pilot and copilot go through their pre-flight check lists, and the first of the passengers arrive. The flight attendant, Emma Lightner, an employee of Gullwing Air, knows precisely how to make the rich and famous comfortable. Her job is to serve without being seen; an invisible servant of the air.
David Bateman, a highly successful and extremely wealthy executive in the faux news industry, has chartered the plane to return his family to New York City. His wife, Maggie and two children have spent the previous month on Martha’s Vineyard. Gathering his sleeping young son, J.J. in his arms from the backseat of the Range Rover, David escorts his daughter, Rachel, and his wife, Maggie up the stairway into the plane. Gil, David’s body guard, takes care of loading their luggage. David’s cell phone has been ringing non-stop through the boarding process much to Maggie’s dismay. She turns to the flight attendant and asks, ” Has Scott arrived yet?”
Next to arrive are Ben and Sarah Kipling, more friends to David than Maggie. Ben is a partner at one of the largest Wall Street firms and arrives very anxious to speak privately to David. “I need to talk to you.” David indicates that he is on an important call. Scowling as he concludes his call, David turns to hear what Ben has to say so urgently; the on-board TV in the background blaring something significant happening in the baseball game.
With the two families on-board, the agitated Ben glances at the cockpit and asks if they are waiting for anyone else. David tells Ben that Maggie has invited a friend needing to travel to NYC, a artist, to join them. Annoyed that this friend is late, David tells the flight attendant to give him “five more minutes and he’ll have to catch the ferry like everyone else.”
The British pilot, James Melody and first officer, Charlie Busch finalize their instruments check. David receives one more call, feeling edgy, he directs the flight attendant to close the main cabin door, the pilot starts the engines and at the last minute a man yells, WAIT!
Maggie’s friend, Scott Burroughs, bursts through the door hoisting a dirty green duffel bag over his shoulder. He is directed to a seat and when the flight attendant asks to store his bag for him, startled, Scott replies, “No. I got it.”
The pilot’s voice appears over their casual conversations to let everyone know they should be buckled into their seats for take-off. Everything is routine and the plane lifts upward through the fog to arrive in the calm peace of a dark night sky. There is no hint that a brief eighteen minutes later the plane will spiral into the Atlantic.
Amazingly, Scott Burroughs and four-year old J.J. Bateman survive the crash. Their survival story is dramatic and improbable in a real world but necessary to tie all the strings together in this mystery. I have to admit I was about as exhausted as Scott by the time he finally made it to shore with J.J.
From this point forward, Hawley spins parallel stories of each passenger filling in their personal stories and leaving out just enough to keep the mystery of what brought the plane down going to the end. We are introduced to the characters that will sift and weave through each of the victims lives looking for the cause of the crash.
The alphabet soup of authorities that always gather after a plane crash-NTSB, FAA, the aircraft manufacturer, the FBI and for some reason, the SEC, crush into Scott’s hospital room. There are good cop-bad cop stereotypes in this group. They grill him for information but he has no memory of the last minutes of the accident.
David’s news channel’s on-air anchorman, Bill Cunningham, best described as Rush Limbaugh on steroids, is very annoying and bombastic. Cunningham’s sleazy informants provide enough fodder for him to generate an escalating slimy theory presented as fact about Scott, the lone adult survivor.
To further fill out the story, the in-laws and out-laws of each family play their parts in the aftermath. And finally the background and histories of each of the flight crew are revealed putting them under the microscope.
My favorite parts were the children. They felt real and well described. Images of the recovery of the bodies from this crash brought back memories of the news coverage of the recovery of young JFK, Jr and his plane. I felt sympathy for Maggie Bateman’s sister as grappled with the permanent changes to her life with the loss of her sister and the arrival of her nephew, J.J. into her household. Scott’s story line was contrived at times. Who has a “Paris Hilton” ready to hide you in her home? At other times, you couldn’t help feel sympathy for the way he was maligned by just about everyone. I liked, what I have decided to call vignettes, that propel each person’s story forward to a point where they all connect in those final eighteen minutes.
But I am not sure I liked it when I arrived at that all important moment in the book where the mystery was solved, I thought, WHAT? Really?